IRIN's Top Picks: Cambodian injustice, Syrian hospitals, and missing pirates

Our round-up of the week's must-reads and more...

Welcome to IRIN's reading list. Every week our global network of specialist correspondents share their top picks of recent must-read research, podcasts, reports, blogs and in-depth articles to help you keep on top of global crises. We also highlight key upcoming conferences, book releases and policy debates.

Five to read:

Measuring the middle

In most countries we have the (few) fabulously wealthy and the (many) dirt poor. But what about the people in the middle? Can’t their number tell us something about poverty and opportunity? SciDev takes newly published figures on the median incomes of countries from the Center for Global Development, a Washington D.C.-based think tank, and uses them to expose Nigeria’s rampant inequality.

In a country that buys more champagne and private jets than any other African nation, it turns out that a middle earner takes home just $1.80 each day — below the international poverty line of $1.90. Several countries with a similar GDP per capita do far better. In Tonga, middle earners score $7 a day, and in Bolivia it’s $9. Even in Nigeria’s northern neighbour Niger — six times poorer as a country per capita — the median income is 10 cents more. You can download global figures here.

Syrian hospitals under fire

Earlier this week, a 30-bed hospital in Syria’s Idlib Province was destroyed in multiple airstrikes, reportedly killing 25 and depriving many more of healthcare. Médecins Sans Frontières provided support for the facility and, as this report from the medical charity documents, it was only the latest in a series of similar attacks in Syria. In 2015, 63 MSF-supported hospitals and clinics were bombed or shelled in 94 separate attacks, completely destroying 12 of the facilities and killing 23 staff members. MSF says four attacks have the makings of the infamous “double-tap”, with a second hit after first responders have arrived. MSF counts 7,009 war deaths and 154,647 injuries last year, and that’s just in the 70 makeshift hospitals and clinics it supports. The group isn’t just throwing around numbers; it’s making a strong call to end attacks on civilians and the targeting of Syria's brave remaining doctors, nurses, and ambulance drivers. As MSF International President Dr. Joanne Liu put it Thursday: “We say loud and clear: the doctor of your enemy is not your enemy”.

Where did all the pirates go?

Last year, the number of pirate attacks off the coast of Somalia fell to practically zero. In the “post-piracy environment” there are now calls for policy reforms – explored in this Institute for Security Studies report. They include: a reduction in the size of the so-called high-risk area to reduce the cost of trade and insurance; a new strategy for the UN’s Contact Group for Piracy; greater cooperation and information-sharing among western Indian Ocean states affected by piracy; and a call for local stakeholders, such as the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, to drive new developments.

“New maritime security tasks entail more than simply keeping piracy suppressed, but are also about simultaneously building blue economies and conducting peacebuilding in Somalia,” says the ISS report – perhaps a little optimistically.

Those other migration stories…

Much of the media and policy focus in the past year has been on Europe’s so-called migration crisis, but the vast majority of migratory movements take place within the Global South. The International Organization for Migration’s bi-monthly journal, Migration Policy Practice, devotes a special issue to expected migration trends in the Global South in 2016, with contributions by leading migration experts from Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and the Gulf. They lay out the key migration policy challenges for leaders in their regions and predict how migration flows are likely to evolve this year. According to their analysis, Africans will be keeping a close eye on how Europe’s pledge of development assistance in return for cooperation on migration agreed to at the Valetta Summit plays out over the coming months. In Asia, the major story in 2016 is likely to be how the falling oil price is likely to impact labour migration to the Middle East. In Latin America and the Caribbean, one of the main challenges for 2016 will be how to respond to the movement of Cubans and Central Americans through the region towards the United States.

International injustice in Cambodia

Just over 40 years ago, the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia and turned the entire country into one big labour camp. A quarter of the population died in less than four years, from disease, hunger, overwork or outright murder. The regime was finally ousted in 1979 by defectors and troops from neighbouring Vietnam, and the new government almost immediately held a trial in absentia of the regime’s leader, Pol Pot, and a senior member, Ieng Sary, convicting them both of genocide. The United States and its allies dismissed it as a show trial by a puppet government of Vietnam, and in the twisted Cold War logic of the 1980s, they continued to recognise the Khmer Rouge at the United Nations as the legitimate government of Cambodia. That changed in the 1990s after the Vietnamese pulled troops out and the UN launched a huge peacekeeping mission and held elections. Political jockeying saw the two main parties compete for support from the remnants of the Khmer Rouge that were still fighting, offering them amnesty to lay down their arms and join forces.  Justice denied once more.

Finally, after a decade of negotiations between the UN and the government, which was led by Khmer Rouge defectors, the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia began operating in 2006. This report by the Open Society Foundation examines the court’s record over the past 10 years and finds: “The results are decidedly mixed.” Significant victories include reaching out to victims and sparking a national conversation about an era that was taboo for decades, which even brought Khmer Rouge history into school textbooks. But the tribunal’s achievements have been overshadowed by controversies, including allegations of corruption and political interference.

One to read and/or listen to:

Scientists strengthen link between Zika and microcephaly

Weeks have past since the initial news broke about Zika. The outbreak has spread to dozens of countries throughout the Americas. The US Congress has been asked for $1.8 billion to combat the scourge even though only one locally acquired infection has been reported. Growing doubts have meanwhile been expressed about the strength of the link between pregnant women having the virus and babies being born with small heads. The data has been questioned; rival explanations have been tested; some have second-guessed the World Health Organization for declaring the outbreak a global public health emergency and wondered if, consumed by guilt over Ebola, it over-reacted this time around. The pope has even weighed in, suggesting that the Catholic Church may be prepared to condone contraception in Zika cases.

Meanwhile, a team of 18 scientists has been carefully examining the amniotic fluid of two pregnant women in Brazil whose fetuses were diagnosed with microcephaly. Their results, reported in the specialist publication Lancet Infectious Diseases, aren’t good news for the conspiracy theorists: the Zika virus genome was detected in the amniotic fluid of both women. Their conclusion: “These findings strengthen the putative association between Zika virus and cases of microcephaly in neonates in Brazil. Moreover, our results suggest that the virus can cross the placental barrier. As a result, Zika virus should be considered as a potential infectious agent for human fetuses.”

Listen to this podcast of the interview with lead researcher Ana de Filippis.

One to look at:

The atlas of everything

The Center for International Development at Harvard University has come up with a brilliant dataviz – the Atlas of Economic Complexity. Select a country and you can choose to look at everything it imported/exported in a given year, or the composition and value of its trade with individual countries. You can even narrow your search to specific products. We were thrilled, for example, to discover that 82 percent of Ghana’s biscuit and pastry exports went to Burkina Faso in 2014.

One to watch:

Syrian Refugees Part 1

For a satirical take on the Syrian refugee crisis, look no further than Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal. With the US primary election season in full swing and Republican presidential contenders locked in an ugly battle to see who can talk toughest on immigration, the former “correspondent” on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart calls out the xenophobes and makes fun of the stateside hysteria. On a visit to a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, she finds alarmingly normal people, mostly women and children, simply trying to escape the horror of the Syrian civil war. And to illustrate just how hard it would be for a jihadist to infiltrate the refugee resettlement programme and bring “Death to America!”, Bee hits you with some hard stats and hilarious animation as well. Look out for next week’s second installment as she interviews Syrian refugees arriving in the US to see how well they are integrating in the “Land of the Free”.

One to keep an eye on:

Uganda decides

Will the youth vote be significant? With 44 percent of Uganda’s voters under the age of 30, could it be a game changer in the election on Thursday in which Yoweri Museveni is gunning for a fifth term in office? No seems to be the simple answer, according to this Africa at LSE blog. Coordination of the youth vote is a “tall order”. It’s a diverse constituency, with many contending identities – other than youth – part of the mix.

And so far it’s been business as usual. Veteran opposition leader Kizza Besigye was arrested (yet again) on the morning of the election when he went to investigate reports of an illegal vote-counting centre; social media was blocked; and there were voting delays. Results are expected on Saturday.

Coming up:

Measuring refugee resilience – Tuesday, 23 February 4pm (CET)

A team from the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, invites you to join them as they unveil a new tool to help measure how all the different assistance and services – be it humanitarian, development or host government – actually impact the lives of refugees. For more information and to join the webinar, click here.